Tucked away at the back of an industrial park in Rockville, Md. is where Edgardo Zuniga is hard at work, bottling rum, vodka and soon whiskey. He’s the Founder and CEO of Twin Valley Distillers with an employee base of one (himself).
Zuniga is also a Costa Rican immigrant, trained in Italian cooking and married to a Jamaican wife. He’s spent more than a decade in the restaurant industry but decided to leave that all behind, primarily out of a frustration for better rum.
"I’m a little crazy," Zuniga says. "It’s really my wife’s fault. She makes a lot of Jamaican drinks. We make sorrel all the time with rum, sugar and ginger. When I first made them, I started to infuse rum with flavor, but soon, I realized that I couldn’t control the quality of the alcohol. So I learned how to make it myself."
He calls his entry into distilling a ‘happy accident,’ but Zuniga is also at the forefront of a movement that’s helping to resurrect Maryland’s past as a producer of alcohol.
At one point, there were dozens of distilleries operating across the "Old Line State." In colonial days imported Caribbean molasses was used to make rum. And, in the late-1800s and early-1990s (before Prohibition) western Maryland and Baltimore were both hot beds for Maryland Rye, a lighter, smoother style of whiskey that ranked in popularity with other rye blends made in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
While there’s a legacy of distilling in the state, today there are just remnants of the past. For instance, Pikesville Rye, which was historically a Baltimore brand of whiskey, now lives on in name only. It’s produced by Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Distilleries.
But, there are a new crop of distillers helping to bring back Maryland’s boozy past, and Zuniga says he is one of the few in the state doing it right now. According to the Maryland Comptroller's office, there are six distilleries with an operating license in the state. A few of the more popular distillers are located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: Lyon Distilling Company and Blackwater Distilling.
Twin Valley is the only distillery in Montgomery County, but that could change soon. There are a handful of new operations in the permitting and licensing phases, a process that took Zuniga more than two years before he could officially open in May.
Walking around the Twin Valley warehouse, it’s easy to get a sense for Zuniga’s Maryland pride. The state flag hangs from the warehouse bay, each bottle reads ‘Product of Maryland’ and except for things like molasses (which ships from Florida) almost all of his ingredients come from Maryland farms, some as close as Germantown, Md.
At any point the distillery operation is humming with activity. During a late night visit, Zuniga shows off the molasses fermentation process. He opens the top to a 200-gallon plastic barrel that is hissing with sugary molasses in the process of fermentation. After two days, the mix will be distilled and produce about 120 bottles of rum. Zuniga makes a traditional-style rum with a slightly sweet finish. The three-month aged variety, available to purchase only at the distillery, gains the flavors of the oak bourbon barrel and has a spicier finish.
Aside from the rum, Zuniga is excited to show-off his newest label, a corn whiskey that was just approved for sale. He’s hoping to bottle and sell it by Thanksgiving. In total, Zuniga has produced more than 1,000 bottles of alcohol so far. The two primary spirits: Seneca Bay Rum (an unaged white rum) and Norbeck Vodka (a wheat vodka) are available for sale in Montgomery County liquor stores, and the spirits are behind the bars at Clyde’s in Chevy Chase and Cuba de Ayer in Bethesda, Md.
Zuniga says he’s working on expanding distribution, and there’s clearly room to grow — right now his stills take up only a third of the warehouse space. Distillery tours have also started on Fridays and Saturdays. A tour and tasting of the three spirits: whiskey, rum and vodka is $10 and requires an advanced reservation. Zuniga leads the tour and says he takes pride in the fact that the work is his.
"I touch every bottle at least seven times," he says. "For me, this has not been something that happened overnight. This is something that I’ve been working on for two years now."
Twin Valley Distillers is located at 711 East Gude Dr. Bay D, Rockville, MD 20850; website. For tour reservations, please call: (240) 614-7509